After oil prices cratered two years ago, leading to lost jobs across the energy industry, many West Texas workers found relief in what seemed an unlikely place: solar power.
Instead of the boom-and-bust cycle of the oil and gas market, these workers sought stability in longer-term construction projects building facilities that harness solar power. Those opportunities, fueled by lower prices for solar panels, helped prevent widespread unemployment, said Doug May, the executive director of the Fort Stockton Economic Development Council.
“We were able to put people to work in the construction industry on these solar facilities who were working in the oilfield,” May said. “It’s enabled us to keep our economy stable.”
The respite may be short-lived. Solar industry advocates are warning that a case facing the U.S. International Trade Commission could significantly raise the price of solar panels in the United States, stunting growth across the country, but especially in Texas.
In April, Suniva Inc., a Georgia-based solar panel manufacturing company, filed a petition with the Trade Commission requesting protection from foreign competition. Solar manufacturing abroad has recently flooded the American solar market, lowering prices for panels here. Suniva, which recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, wants the commission to effectively set a tariff and bar imported solar panels below a certain price level.
The effects to the American solar industry could be “devastating,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, the CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a national organization. The group, which is fighting the case in Washington, D.C., estimates Texas could lose more than 6,000 jobs in the construction, wiring and development segments of the solar industry if the price of solar panels rises.
The cheaper imports have fueled growth in Texas. In 2016, the industry added 2,366 workers in the state, a 34 percent bump from the previous year, according to data from the Solar Foundation, a solar advocacy nonprofit. That growth could be just the beginning: The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which runs the state’s electricity grid, projects that solar power could contribute up to 28,100 megawatts to the grid within the next 10 to 15 years, an enormous increase from the roughly 1,000 megawatts currently on the grid.
“Solar in Texas is really coming on strong. We have seen tremendous cost reductions over the past several years,” said Charlie Hemmeline, the executive director of the Texas Solar Power Association, a state-based industry group.
And while the Trade Commission will not rule on the Suniva case until September — President Donald Trump will make the final decision on any potential remedies — some solar companies in Texas are already feeling effects.
Clay Butler is the CEO of 7X Energy, an Austin company that develops large solar farms and sells the power they generate to utilities and corporations. His company is preparing to sell more than 400 megawatts of solar power in Texas — “hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the state," he said.
But concerns about the trade case have already stalled progress on the company’s plans here. With the potential for more expensive solar panels in the United States, Butler said locations abroad are looking more compelling for solar developers than sun-drenched Texas.
“If we cannot compete here, we need to go to other countries, whether it’s Australia or Mexico,” Butler said. “We are actively now focusing a lot of our development efforts in other countries.”
And as solar developers begin to consider their options, the contractors and firms that help build their large-scale solar farms in Texas and elsewhere are also beginning to feel industry tremors.
McCarthy Building Companies is one of the construction firms that helps build solar farms in Texas, employing hundreds of people at a time to complete its projects. Scott Canada, senior vice president of renewable energy at McCarthy, said some projects have recently started to fall through because of the Suniva case.
“We’ve had at least one in West Texas be put on hold and the other we haven’t heard back, but I’m assuming that’s the next shoe to drop,” Canada said. “It’s definitely slowing development. It causes definitely some inefficiency in the business and some direct heartburn" for workers.
To Matthew McConkey, the lawyer representing Suniva before the Trade Commission, concerns about job loss are inflated — “scare tactics” from an industry that favors installation over manufacturing jobs.
“They don’t want to talk about all those lost jobs in [solar panel] manufacturing,” McConkey said.
Some solar panel manufacturers in Texas have seen their business wane as imports have undercut their prices. In the past year, Mission Solar Energy, a solar panel manufacturer based in San Antonio, has laid off more than 200 employees. But even though it would benefit from higher solar panel prices, the company does not support the trade case, according to Mission Solar Energy spokeswoman Nicole Howard.
“While we acknowledge that foreign competition is a challenge for our company, we object to Suniva’s petition as it currently stands,” Howard wrote in a statement. “Despite Suniva’s claims, solar manufacturing in the U.S. has seen growth in past years.”
Hemmeline, with the Texas Solar Power Association, said that panel manufacturing represents only a small part of the solar industry, both nationally and in Texas.
“When you think about the solar industry and the different job pieces, I think it’s important to keep in mind it’s just one of those pieces," he said.
But Bret Biggart, the CEO of Austin-based Freedom Solar Power, which installs solar panels on commercial and residential properties, said that price increases tend to be more consequential in Texas, a conservative state where people are less mobilized by the urgency of climate change.
“It’s less compelling than it is in California and a lot of East Coast states," he said, "and so the impact is potentially a lot greater in a state like Texas."
The Trade Commission will have its first hearing on the case in August.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described 7X Energy's operations.